I rowed briefly in college and it was one of the best team experiences in the world. The learnings and metaphors are endless in terms of how we work together in organizations and businesses. The pinnacle of a rower's experience is when their boat achieves swing.
SWING: The elusive, hard-to-define feeling when near-perfect synchronization of motion occurs in the shell, enhancing performance and speed. The rower feels almost weightless. Once they feel the swing, rowers spend many hours trying to recapture the experience.
I rowed in an eight and I can tell you that those moments of swing were few and far between - they most often happened during a race and many of them I will never forget. I remember one race in particular when I was sitting in stroke seat - the individual who leads the cadence and is responsible for executing the coxswain's commands. More often than not, everyone tried to do what our coxswain told us to do as she was the person tracking the length of the course, the competition, our cadence, and watching each of the oarswomen. But this one race, we were behind and something in me clicked and I decided that I wasn't going to go down without a better fight... so I let her know I was going to take it up a bit. Now here is where things get interesting from a leadership perspective. I could have started increasing the strokes per minute... but there were eight other decision points that had to agree in order to execute the move with swing and it had to happen within seconds. Most of the time, one or more of those decision points (rowers) fail to completely agree and the boat may increase in speed a bit but various rowers are using their power inefficiently because they are moving at ever-so-slightly different speeds. That inefficiency creates drag which you can feel. When you achieve swing, it feels like you are floating with almost no drag in the water. That one race everyone fell together, trusted each other, and we screamed through three other boats in what felt like seconds. It is definitely one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my life (and yes, we won).
In management and leadership, the thing that is really interesting about swing is that it doesn't happen with skill alone. Skill is necessary - if you can't balance the boat and row together forget about swing. But nine exceptionally skilled rowers who want slightly different things and are not on the same page will never achieve swing - and in fact they can create a great deal of drag because they are so strong and skilled. I was in the B boat on my crew team for a while (anyone who knows me will know why... I'm fairly darn short as rowers go). We used to laugh at ourselves a lot and thought of ourselves as type B personalities as well... laid back and good-natured (people have since disabused me of this notion - I guess it's all relative). In contrast the A boat was full of tall intense women who could kick our a**es in the gym. For most of my first year rowing, they beat us consistently - after all they were much taller and stronger. The really interesting thing is that toward the middle of the spring season, we started beating them on a somewhat regular basis. It was not expected but the thing was - we didn't compete against each other as much to 'prove' ourselves. We were much more likely to go with the flow of the group. There was a lot less friction and drag as a result and it was easier for us to achieve swing. And we had more fun in the process. It didn't seem to make a lot of sense.
The management lessons are particularly applicable for the networked world. Yes, skill is critical - you can't win without it. Strategy is also critical so that you all know what the goal is and how you're all going to get there. But ego, in-fighting, and people that want to win at all costs? That kills swing.
It is better to agree and execute a sup-optimal decision collectively than to have a team of rockstars that all want to convince people to do it their way - even if each one of them is a genius. That reality has huge implications on hiring, performance management, and leadership. It changes our ideas about what it means to be competitive. However, swing is so powerful that it can overcome strength and natural advantages.
My advice? Learn to row... or at least think like a rower. What can you do to learn to swing and how can you set up and incent your teams to think like rowers?